WASHINGTON—Uzoma Nwachukwu had only recently graduated from college and was working as an engineer in his native Nigeria when he got the news that he was finally going to receive the green card he had applied for just months before.
Like thousands of other African immigrants, the then-25-year-old Nwachukwu won his green card through the diversity visa lottery.
“I was relieved,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to come to the U.S., ever since nursery school. I wanted to go to the U.S. by all means.”
Since he arrived in the United States in 2003, he has earned his master’s in environmental science, built a successful career as a respiratory therapist and started a shipping company—opportunities he may not have had back in his home country.
But the program Nwachukwu said “has been good to people like me” could be cut, one of the casualties of the Senate’s latest immigration reform bill, which favors merit-based immigration over diversity measures and family reunification.
As the bill enters its third day of markups Thursday, Nwachukwu, president of the D.C. chapter of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization, and other African leaders are anxious to save the program they say is crucial for African immigration.
“People need to leave there because of political problems, things caused by war,” Nwachukwu said. “The diversity visa has been an opportunity to help these kinds of people to come over here.”
Established by the Immigration Act of 1990, the green card lottery randomly awards as many as 55,000 visas each year to “low admission” countries. Of those, nearly half go to African countries. Behind family reunification, diversity visas are the second most common means of coming to the U.S. for immigrants from Africa, according to a 2011 Migration Policy Institute report.
As the immigration bill proposes cuts to the diversity visa and family reunification programs, it also seeks to raise the cap on H-1B non-immigrant visas from 65,000 to as many as 180,000, depending on demand, but few of these visas are given to specialty occupation workers from Africa.
Between 2000 and 2009, 64 percent of H-1B visas were given to workers from India, China, Canada, and the Philippines, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report. Approximately 31 percent went to workers from the rest of the world.
In the decade since Nwachukwu came to the U.S., more than 200,000 diversity visas have been issued to African nationals; without the diversity visa program, Nwachukwu said Africans will have limited opportunities to come to the U.S.
“It will definitely be so devastating,” he said.
Diversity visas for fiscal year 2014 have already been selected, and recipients will be exempt from the cuts should they pass.
Last-ditch efforts last week to find a sponsor for an amendment before the May 7 deadline were unsuccessful, but Sylvie Bello, founder of the Cameroon American Council and a Cameroonian immigrant herself, said she and other community leaders will not stop fighting.
“Immigration is not someone else’s issue,” she said. “It’s a black issue.”